Sunday, January 6, 2013

Urban Gardening

I have to say the weather was superbly pleasant today; I didn't even have to wear long sleeves outside. While trying to decide what to write about today, I managed to get some work done on my planter boxes that I've been meaning to get around to for about two months now. I pulled the seeds off of my dead basil and marigolds and put them in jars to store them until spring. Then I pulled the plants up (since both are annual, not perennial). I only saved a handful of seeds from both plants, because I only need a few to plant next year (after which I will save those seeds). I was entertained to find wild onions growing when I pulled up my basil, but more on that later.

Marigold seeds.
Basil seeds.
I originally planted the Marigolds because they are a natural pest deterrent. Steve Lunk, co-owner of Cedar Rock Ridge (one of the farms that sells through CLG), told me that even after Marigolds die, they haven't finished working for you. He recommended that I take the flower pods and crush them up into my soil, allowing them to continue deterring pests as they compost. So, as he suggested, I crushed up the pods whose seeds I didn't save into the planter box where my peppers had been this past year (I also removed the dead pepper plants today). Then, I turned the soil and planted my new garlic and Egyptian Walking Onions, which are hardy plants and will last through the mild Arkansas winter.

Over the summer, Richard and I did some landscaping in the back yard. We extended our back patio to about twice it's size and put together two planter boxes for my use (simply made of 1x6in boards nailed together to form a rectangle outline). I can tell you that planting in an urban setting is made much easier if you pull up the weeds, lay down some plastic and use raised beds. It is a lot easier to control the nutritional content of the soil, as well as what plants pop up. If you are thinking about starting a small garden plot around your home, I recommend using a raised bed. Now, if you want to start planting this spring, you need to start a compost pile today. We ended up using all of the dirt we dug up in the landscaping project to add to the small compost pile we had going. All of that dry weed-filled dirt is now moist, bountiful soil. Most people I know have a bin where they keep their compost, however, Richard and I just have a pile at the wood-line of our property.

Before and after photo of the landscaping job

The trick to good compost is to put everything (except meats) in it. Egg shells, tea leaves, coffee grounds, spare vegetable parts, dry leaves, etc. This will give it a rounded nutritional content. When I was staying on a farm in Asheville, North Carolina, I was told that they did not put any food that had been cooked into the compost. The lady telling me this wasn't sure as to why, but thought it had something to do with the oils. I compost everything, even food that I cooked and was unable to finish before it spoiled. So far, everything has broken down and it hasn't caused a problem.

I've found a number of plants growing out of my compost pile. There were half a dozen tomato plants out there back in November. I found some parsley once, which I picked and ate. My roommate even dug up two squash plants, repotted them and let the grow. We discovered later that they were spaghetti squash plants and I currently have a spaghetti squash in my window from one of them. There are several keys to composting, including making sure the soil stays moist, turning the compost when you add fresh ingredients, and being patient.

When spring rolls around, you are going to want to transfer your fertile compost soil (not any chunks of food) into your planter boxes. When we started my planter boxes, I filled them with plain topsoil mixed with a small amount of the dirt we had dug up, then covered with a thin layer of organic potting soil. Once spring rolls around, I plan to turn in some of the compost soil, which will add more nutrition to the soil. Because I didn't have the added compost nutrition last year, I used organic fertilizer on my plants and they did really well. However, I planted all of my peppers in early summer last year, so they didn't produce until the fall. You would not believe the amount of peppers I got off those plants when they finally started producing.

Upon deciding to start your own urban garden, you must decide what kind of plants you want to produce. This decision will be the starting point for how deep your soil needs to be; where your planter boxes need to be placed relative to the amount of sunlight they will receive; how fertile the soil needs to be; and, which nutrients are the most important. I recently learned that the most likely reason for my tomatoes rotting last year was a lack of calcium in the soil. Steve says he replaces calcium in the soil with the calcium buildup (white powder) on oyster shells, which he feeds to his chickens, mixed with water. I will try adding more calcium to the soil next year and see if my tomatoes turn out better.

Another important thing to decide is how much of each vegetable or herb you will use. When my cucumbers started producing last summer, I was overrun. I canned around 10 quarts of pickles, put cucumbers in smoothies, made a lot of tzatziki sauce and still didn't use all of them. I only had four plants! I think next year, I will stick with just two. I planted a huge amount of basil this past year, as well. I learned just how much I had when I transferred the ten plants to one of my planter boxes. By the fall, my basil plants looked like hedges. I love basil and we ended up freezing a lot of it to use throughout the winter. (Nothing like semi-fresh pesto in winter!) If you are up to canning/freezing, I recommend plating plenty of vegetable plants and not worrying about them. I managed to salvage enough tomatoes for two quart jars and a handful of fresh ones. Oh, if you plan to pick tomatoes a little early, make sure you bring them inside to ripen, not leave them out in the summer sun. I lost a huge batch of tomatoes last year because I left them outside for a day after picking them and the sun just baked them instead of ripening them.

Plant spacing is a huge thing to worry about. Here, I can only give you suggestions based on my experience. Zucchini plants get huge. I planted mine about 18 inches apart and they still grew into one another. Oh, and you should get something for cucumber to climb; they are vine-like plants and like to hold on to things (like your grass or other plants around them). Tomatoes also need something to hang on to because when they get tall enough, they start to fall over if they don't have a brace. I used bamboo sticks this year and tied them up, but that didn't work as well as the chicken wire that my grandparents used to employ. Next year, I think I will go with the fencing option. Once I finish reading How to Grow More Vegetables Than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land Than You Can Imagine, I will be able to tell you a lot more about spacing and symbiotic plant relationships.

My basil hedge.
You might think that you don't have time to take care of a garden plot. I am here to tell you that it takes almost no time at all. The most time I put into my garden last year was tilling the large garden plot and transplanting all of my seedlings into it. After you get the plants planted, you pretty much let them go. Make sure they have a lot of water. Last summer was awful considering the country-wide draught we suffered. It is well worth the time and effort put into having your own garden. One of my favorite feelings is that of pride when I go out and pick fresh vegetables or herbs to use for dinner.

While I was in Little Rock yesterday, I stopped by a garden center to ask about fruit trees. I convinced Richard to let me get a peach tree to plant this year. However, when I talked with the owner of the shop, he informed me that a number of fruit trees won't bear fruit around this area (they do better on hilly areas). Peach and apple trees where two of the ones he mentioned. I was disappointed, but decided that I would get a dwarf lemon tree instead. Apparently citrus fruits are much more prolific in this area of Arkansas. Thinking on what I was told yesterday, I am a little confused. Richard's dad lives in Little Rock on a little farm off I-440, in a non-hilly area. He has two peach trees in his yard and gathers a large amount of fruit from them every year. I'm convinced that a peach tree would grow in my yard, but I already decided to get a dwarf lemon tree instead. Besides there is an orchard right on the edge of Conway (Collins Orchard) where I can gather peaches in the summer for a decent price. If you want to check out the orchard, their website is:

To sum up, urban gardening is not as difficult as some might imagine; even organic gardening is pretty simple. Composting is important and should be started now for spring gardens. Things to keep in mind when planning your garden include: type of plants, amount of sun they need, depth to be sown, spacing plants properly and nutrients they require.

I hope that some of you will decide to start your own gardens this year, even if they only have one or two plants in them. I would recommend starting with herbs if you want to grow something easy and hassle free. Growing herbs is one of my favorite hobbies because fresh herbs are super expensive and they are easy to grow. Below you can find pictures from my garden last year to inspire you.

Freshly transplanted baby zucchini.
Zucchini plant, not even at it's largest.
My large garden plot about mid-summer.
One day's harvest.


  1. Is there a difference to you between "urban farming" and gardening? In my mind, the former implies a change of mindset from hobby to subsistence/business, something which Conway's oppressive landscaping ordinances make exceedingly difficult. Your usage comes off a bit buzzword-y.

    Also, this year try snipping the buds off your basil plants as soon as they appear (except the ones you intend to seed, of course). You'll be rewarded with a more pungent leaf.

  2. I actually did snip the buds off my basil for the first two months. However, after that, I went out of the country for five weeks and Richard let them get a little out of hand. Which was fine, because I got a large number of seeds from them. Thanks for the tip though. ;)

    As far as urban farming and gardening goes, I agree with you. To call it urban farming, I would say you were growing enough food for subsistence. If you noticed, I only used farming in the title. I had actually meant to change the title before posting, but was distracted yesterday evening and didn't get around to it. Thanks for the reminder!